For other uses, see Harpy (disambiguation).
Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Hybrid
Similar creatures Siren, sphinx, centaur
Mythology Greek and Roman

In Greek mythology and Roman mythology, a harpy (plural harpies, Greek: ἅρπυια,[1][2] harpyia, pronounced [hárpyi̯a]; Latin: harpȳia) was a female monster in the form of a bird with a human face. They steal food from their victims while they are eating and carry evildoers (especially those who have killed their family) to the Erinyes. They seem originally to have been wind spirits. Their name means "snatchers".[3]

Homer wrote that a harpy was the mother of the two horses of Achilles sired by the West Wind Zephyrus.[4]

Hesiod calls them two "lovely-haired" creatures, the daughters of Thaumas and the Oceanid Electra (not to be confused with Electra, daughter of King Agamemnon), who were sisters of Iris.[5] Pottery art depicting the harpies featured beautiful women with wings. Roman and Byzantine writers detailed their ugliness.[6]


A harpy in Ulisse Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia, Bologna, 1642
A medieval depiction of a harpy as a bird-woman

King Phineus of Thrace was given the gift of prophecy by Zeus. Angry that Phineus gave away the god's secret plan, Zeus punished him by blinding him and putting him on an island with a buffet of food which he could never eat because the harpies always arrived to steal the food out of his hands before he could satisfy his hunger, and befouled the remains of his food. This continued until the arrival of Jason and the Argonauts. The Boreads, sons of Boreas, the North Wind, who also could fly, succeeded in driving off the harpies, but without killing any of them, following a request from Iris, who promised that Phineus would not be bothered by the harpies again. "The dogs of great Zeus" returned to their "cave in Minoan Crete". Thankful for their help, Phineus told the Argonauts how to pass the Symplegades.[7]

In this form they were agents of punishment who abducted people and tortured them on their way to Tartarus. They were vicious, cruel and violent. They lived on the islands of the Strophades. They were usually seen as the personifications of the destructive nature of wind. The harpies in this tradition are now thought of as three sisters instead of the original two. Hesiod's two Harpies are named Aello ("storm swift") and Ocypete ("the swift wing"),[8][9] and Virgil added Celaeno ("the dark") as a third.[10] Homer knew of a Harpy named Podarge ("fleet-foot").[11]

Aeneas encountered harpies on the Strophades as they repeatedly made off with the feast the Trojans were setting. Celaeno utters a prophecy: the Trojans will be so hungry they will eat their tables before they reach the end of their journey. The Trojans fled in fear.

Harpies in the infernal wood, from Inferno XIII, by Gustave Doré, 1861

Harpies remained vivid in the Middle Ages. In Canto XIII of his Inferno, Dante Alighieri envisages the tortured wood infested with harpies, where the suicides have their punishment in the seventh ring of Hell:

Here the repellent harpies make their nests,

Who drove the Trojans from the Strophades
With dire announcements of the coming woe.
They have broad wings, with razor sharp talons and a human neck and face,

Clawed feet and swollen, feathered bellies; they caw
Their lamentations in the eerie trees.[1]

  1. ^ Translation of Robert Pinsky, Boston Review

William Blake was inspired by Dante's description in his pencil, ink and watercolour "The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides" (Tate Gallery, London).

Linguistic use and application

The harpy eagle is a real bird named after the mythological animal.

The term is often used metaphorically to refer to a nasty or annoying woman. In Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick spots the sharp-tongued Beatrice approaching and exclaims to the prince, Don Pedro, that he would do an assortment of arduous tasks for him "rather than hold three words conference with this harpy!"


Greater coat of arms of the city of Nuremberg

In the Middle Ages, the harpy, often called the Jungfrauenadler or "virgin eagle" (although it may not have been modeled after the original harpy of Greek mythology) (al, became a popular charge in heraldry, particularly in East Frisia, seen on, among others, the coats-of-arms of Rietburg, Liechtenstein, and the Cirksena.

In Carl Barks' Donald Duck story "The Golden Fleecing" (1955), Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck and Huey, Louie and Dewey meet creatures who are half women and half birds and are named "Larkies", despite clearly being modelled after the mythological harpy birds. He was forced to use this name, because harpy was also a slang term for 'street prostitute'. [12]

The award-winning short film Harpya (1979) by Raoul Servais features a man being terrorized by a harpy.[13]

Harpies are villainous characters in Astrid Lindgren's children's novel Ronia the Robber's Daughter and its 1984 film adaptation.[14]

A Harpy is featured prominently in Rankin and Bass's 1981 movie, The Last Unicorn.

In the Marvel Universe, Betty Ross is transformed by gamma radiation into the winged, green-skinned Harpy, and she is a foe of the Hulk.

In "The War of the Simpsons", the twentieth episode of The Simpsons' second season, a bickering, middle-aged married couple named John and Gloria (a parody of George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) attend Reverend Lovejoy's marriage counseling retreat. The couple's arguing escalates when John repeatedly refers to Gloria as the "Queen of the Harpies!"[15]

The Harpies was the first Non-Ian Fleming comic strip of James Bond Comics

See also


  1. Of uncertain etymology; R. S. P. Beekes has suggested a Pre-Greek origin (Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 139).
  2. ἅρπυια. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  3. Adrian Room, Who's Who in Classical Mythology, p. 147 ISBN 0-517-22256-6
  4. Iliad xvi. 150.
  5. Hesiod, Theogony, 265–267.
  6. Virgil, Aeneid iii. 216; Ovid Metamorphoses vii.4, Fasti vi. 132; Hyginus, Fabula 14; Johannes Tzetzes, Ad Lycophron 653.
  7. Argonautica, book II; Ovid XIII, 710; Virgil III, 211, 245
  8. Hesiod, Theogony 265
  9. Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1.121-123. Aello, sometimes also spelled Aellopus or Nicothoe; Ocypete, sometimes also spelled Ocythoe or Ocypode.
  10. Virgil, Aeneid 3.209
  11. Homer, Iliad 16.148
  12. Andrae, Tom (1 January 2006). "Carl Barks and the Disney Comic Book: Unmasking the Myth of Modernity". Univ. Press of Mississippi. Retrieved 9 July 2016 via Google Books.
  13. "Harpya (1979)". 27 September 2015. Retrieved 9 July 2016.
  14. Zipes, Jack (1 January 2015). "The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 July 2016 via Google Books.
  15. "War of the Simpsons". Simpsons Archive. 10 September 1994. Retrieved 23 November 2016.
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